Before I get to proving that, let me head off a few arguments which will probably be offered in Lincoln’s favor, these being the usual inane claims made by an embarrassingly large chunk of the movie criticism world (and the idiot who is usually walking out of the theater right behind you). I don’t mean to disprove any of these arguments in fact, it’s just that none of them demonstrate, to me at least, that this movie is any good.
First – “the acting.” Having already heard at least 100 people affirm something like “Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance was breathtaking”, it would probably be simply contrarian to pretend that it wasn’t. Clearly, the character of Abraham Lincoln was superbly carried out. Except that I am in no position (nor are almost any of the critics who assert this, by the way) to say whether it is fair to the original. I have no idea if that’s “how Lincoln was” – again, I’m a little surprised that people are willing to say such things. We (presuming we haven’t read very much biography) have no idea “how he was.” And I don’t doubt that Day-Lewis read lots about him, tried to inhabit the role, and so on. I know those little profiles that appear is various papers and magazines that explain weird things he did to “become” Lincoln are, for whatever reason, “fascinating” to a certain sort of middle-brow idiot They’re probably true. They’re probably exaggerated too. And I stand by my long-held suspicion that the average member of the public is in no position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any actor. Most are just imitating other people they heard say things like this, people they, for whatever reason, happen to trust. Or sometimes we’re just saying that we like the person we’re looking at and listening to, and we get that confused with liking how good they are at “acting.” But I will not say that Daniel Day-Lewis (not any of the rest of the actors) did a bad job. I myself most enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones’ Congressman Stephens. I found his moral sternness refreshing ,and not entirely condemned by the usual sorts of pragmatism that must be, and to some extent was, piously appealed to in movies like this. It reminded me of a character whose name I don’t remember from Kushner’s Angles in America, a mash-up of Marxist/queer-theorist/etc. whose stridency was great, though from the perspective of the play, I don’t think I was supposed to enjoy it.
Next up on the list of things that were good about the movie but mostly irrelevant: the costumes, scenery, set design, etc. etc. As my worst student writers love to assert as though they’ve said something: “it made you feel like you were actually there.” But as a colleague of mine used to say – “where else would you have been?” And again, how one would know what it would have felt like to have been “there” is a tough question to answer. This was really no more than a Mystic Seaport or Colonial Williamsburg version of “there.” But in that, it was successful. Clearly an enormous amount of money, talent, skill, workmanship, whatever, went into the spectacle of the film. I read an interview with the director of the latest Anna Karenina – he said something like “how many carriages rolling up to manor houses do we need to see to know we’re in The Nineteenth Century anyway?” For Lincoln, the answer is, basically, a lot of them.
Then there is the matter of the script. Yes, it was well-written. I certainly respect Tony Kushner’s other work, at least what I’ve read or seen performed. There was an amusing sort of 19th century rhetorical what-have-you that, at times anyway, sustained my interest independently of the action the dialogue referenced. Anytime I get to hear the phrase “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters” in even a remotely relevant context is bound to please me at some level.
Lastly – the soundtrack. It’s pleasant enough, in that pseudo-nineteenth-century-romantic sort of way, with hints of modernism that are supposed to generate self-congratulation: somewhere between JFK and The West Wing. There are the requisite bugles (at some point, they became some sort of signifier of the presidency… I’d be interested to know when, where, and why that has happened in American movies). The soft moments of recognition of the “horrible human toll” with suitably somberly modulated themes. It’s all there.
To sum up this part of the review – wherein I have made some show of a reasonable concession to those who profess to have enjoyed this movie: on all matters of craft, things as well in order as regards Lincoln. The acting, costume design, writing, and soundtrack are all, I suppose, worth the $10.50, or whatever you paid, to see them. To misquote Thoreau, “the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of movies which they have.” There is the sort of heft to this movie we’ve all been conditioned to expect make it an “Oscar contender.” It’s also been released at the right time of the year.
If this review were in Latin, all the preceding paragraphs would have been one giant ablative absolute. These things all being the case, I now shift to the defense of my thesis: “Lincoln is not that good.”
Where to start? Try the opening scene:
Lincoln is seated on a bench, listening to two very earnest African Americans (one glowing with awe, another more zealous and I suppose radical for that), describing to the as-yet-unrevealed Lincoln (we’re looking at his back) their times of service to the union army, and their desire that both peace and racial equality be achieved soon. Then two white soldiers show up, and, more or less, profess the same thing. All four characters begin reciting the Gettysburg Address and the bemused (but of course humble) Lincoln listens on.
Like I said, he’s seated on a bench, but it might as well have been the five-dollar bill. The light shines on him as though from heaven, and right away, we know, this will be nothing short of hagiography. I stared in puzzlement at the screen: what is it about scenes like this, and therefore movies like this, that so irk me from their very starts? What I came up with on this occasion was – the hero of such a movie is immediately and unquestioningly invested with a sort of moral rectitude which he has not earned. The rule – from the start- seems to me “this is a great man; we will not watch for 2.5 hours as you are shown why, how, where, and when this greatness was made manifest.” Yes, I know some people really like to watch NFL Films, and I shouldn’t criticize hagiography too much (Dostoevsky himself loved his Russian Lives of the Saints). Still, I was irked. All the suspicions I held entering the film were immediately validated by the opening scene. Here was a movie that would congratulate its protagonist for being great, and then, by reflection, allow us to self-congratulate for acknowledging his greatness.
Lincoln’s greatness is presumed throughout, and vouched for by the sorts of pseudo-historical “moments in the life of a great man” that, even to the Romans reading Livy, seemed hackneyed. Brutus visits his house late at night, and finds his wife, dutiful as she is, working at the loom. So too here, we see Lincoln vising the troops, chatting earnestly with one of two African Americans he seems to know about how he’s sure his country can make room for them, even if he doesn’t know or understand them, persuading his son to fight, attempting to stabilize his depressive/manipulative wife, lecturing his cabinet through somewhat tedious expository dialogue about the constitutional conundrums he must resolve, and so on. And none of this is in the service of historical accuracy. More to reassure us of the image we already have of the man; imagined microcosms allow confirmation of the macro-history we think we remember from junior high.
Speaking of history from Junior High: something else this movie does to affect that emotion a kind of clichéd use of lighting and color. A lot of the scenes are made to look like the Daguerreotypes we associate with this historical period. This is supposed to create some sense of authenticity. It not so subtly contributes to the hagiographic feel; any romance you may associate with those old pictures is evoked when Lincoln speaks, and then so, of course, you are further confirmed in your belief that he is a great man.
Something else that is presumed from the start – and something directly relevant to the overly simplistic hero-worship of Lincoln himself – is the obvious immorality of slavery. And don’t get me wrong: slavery is obviously immoral. There are no arguments that can be given in its defense. Even so, precious little screen time is devoted to anything like an understanding of either the material reality of slavery for slaves, or the material factors that allowed it to flourish. On the matter of the lived experience of slavery – we get one vignette of Lincoln’s naïve son asking whether one of his (free) servants was beaten when she was a slave. As to its material causes, or an explanation of why it was the status quo, we get two glimpses: first, there is a wavering democratic representative who says “I am a prejudiced man” because his brother was killed by a black man, and second, there is the Confederate vice president who declares “this will ruin our economy.”
In failing so utterly to offer any sort of material context for the institution of slavery, we might as well be watching a movie about the Holocaust, gay marriage, the American revolution, or any other obviously wrong historical thing you would like to insert. The narrative at that point becomes really simple: there are some bad people, people who do not believe in equality, who once tried to preserve some unequal thing. But then, since we rational, liberal-minded people know, as Lincoln sanctimoniously points out to a couple of his clerks, citing Euclid “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another,” we’re supposed to see that there, right at the start of history, was this self-evidence of tolerance-based liberalism, and it’s just taken until now, because of people like you and me, for this thing to come to pass. Like there’s just something analytically true about human equality (never mind whether our society has anything like human equality at its base) and that for whatever reason, we alone in human history have been able to see this truth clearly.
And why did this thing – slavery – exist in the first place? The answer (in the movie, just as on “moderate” current-events commentary) comes back: either because of “prejudice” or “the economy.” What further explanation could be necessary? Thank goodness, the movie’s narrative seems to show, we have politically astute leaders like Lincoln, who can see our way past such people, and so, we 21st century liberals can understand, always, throughout history, there have been people like us, it’s just, now there are more of them, and so, we can love “how far we’ve come.”
Which brings me to the almost total bankruptcy with which politics is presented in this film. Maybe bankrupt is the wrong term – better bipolar. On one extreme, we have the straightforward moral rectitude of Stephens. On the other, there is the totally depraved and cynical world inhabited by the unsavory characters brought in from Albany to buy votes. At the outset, we learn that Lincoln is about 20 votes short of the 2/3 majority needed in the House to amend the constitution. The search for 20 remaining votes is the main action of the movie. How are they obtained? Bribery for most, earnest persuasion for a handful. Then there is this sort of obnoxious pseudo-Weberian Lincoln, who grasps (again, because he is a hero of unquestioned moral rectitude) that there are times when you must sell out, and other things you must declare “here I stand, I can do no other.” I guess I’ve come to think of this as the West Wing problem. By refusing to understand the actual grip the status quo has over people, we are forced to listen to supposedly high-minded moral debates, the premises of which are actually so apparent and banal from the start that, once again, nothing is learned, but there is still the idiot behind you in the theater making a pseudo-intellectual “hmm” and stroking his chin. If such dialogue actually enlightens him, that truly saddens me.
If slavery has no material causes but only its roots in “prejudice”, and politics is merely the passionate assertion of a more-or-less hollow ideal of tolerance, accompanied with a take-no-prisoners realpolitik, what could we possibly learn from such a film? “Back in those times” again like my worst students love to say, “things were different, now they’re better.” But if we never come to understand anything beyond the most shallow understandings of either the economics or the psychology of slavery, we will never truly overcome its legacy. Movies like this allow us to turn a blind eye to the problems of the present, unless they fit neatly into the “prejudices that must be overcome” variety. And so, this movie really helps nothing more than fights for marriage equality. I don’t mean to trivialize their importance, but, issues of material inequality among the races are totally absent from a movie like this, and so, we can give ourselves a pat on the back.
But – near the movie’s end, Stephens’ African-American lover reads the text of the amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
What have we done in the 21st century? African-Americans lives are still, on average, far worse than white people’s, and the level of black males detained in prison now is not that much different from the level of those who were shackled in slavery. “Except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – well, there, it turns out, is a loophole large enough to drive 150 years of continuing oppression through. And since our national epics refuse to engage in any sort of intelligent discussion about material or psychological foundations of racism, it’s no wonder.
I suppose you could say – why expect this from a movie? “You’re asking for too much.” To which I reply – what is it that’s so comfortable to us about moral narratives of this sort, such that we need collectively to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on them every year or so? Clearly they serve a function. Why do we expect such mediocrity, except that it implicitly forgives us of our collective guilt over the fact that we live in a radically unequal society? Yes, our society is better for not having slavery, and yes, Lincoln played some role in that. But didn’t you already know that? What could you possibly learn from such a movie? I submit that the only real purpose of a movie like that is to re-confirm the acceptability of this obviously shallow moral-political worldview.
Simplistic hero-worship, naïve politics overlaid with a professionally and competently executed set of movie elements… I mean, to be fair, this is a Steven Spielberg movie. What else did I have any right to expect?
[I needn’t say – doubtless the retort will be offered in some quarters – “but it was entertaining!” Always spoken as though the most interesting of distinctions has just been made. If you’re feeling a little more wanting to sound complicated, you will say “but it was thoroughly entertaining!” To which I reply – gentle reader – so apparently, is your Facebook news feed. Go back to it and stop pretending you know something either about movies, history or entertainment.]